How can we show up for ourselves and one another at work (even virtual)? How do we weave nurturing and caring into the structure of our organizations and movements? Virisila Buadromo and Tatiana Cordero Velázquez from Urgent Action Fund, Asia/Pacific and Latin America, share what’s needed to cultivate care at every level.
The Urgent Action Fund is a cutting edge and transformative feminist fund that advances the rights of women and transgender human rights defenders in over 110 countries around the world, including areas affected by armed conflict, escalating violence, political volatility and extreme repression.
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Mallika Dutt: Welcome to Leadership Moves presented by INTER-CONNECTED. I’m Mallika Dutt. In this episode on Cultivating a Culture of Care, we’re joined by two wise, strategic, big-hearted women. Virisila Buadromo from Urgent Action Fund, Asia/Pacific and Tatiana Cordero Velázquez from Urgent Action Fund Latin America, share what’s needed to cultivate care at every level; in our organizations, our communities and our movements.
Mallika Dutt: So, today, we’re going to be hearing from Tatiana Cordero, who is the Executive Director of the Urgent Action Fund in Latin America. You have seen her bio, and you will know that she has been really focusing on how we make sure that frontline human rights defenders are taken care of, nurtured, protected through multiple different roles and means, and through writing, through creating programs. And, she is joined by Virisila Buadromo, who is a Pacific feminist. She co- leads the Urgent Action Funding in Asia and Pacific. She was with the Fiji Women’s Rights Movement for decades and, like Tatiana, Virisila brings decades and decades of organizing and experience in a multiplicity of roles to the work that she is doing.
And so, I’m going to just now open up the conversation with our two panelists. And I’m going to start with this question, and either one of you could respond to it. But, in our feminist movements, in our social justice movements, we have, often, been very focused on the change that we want to make in the world, and really worked very hard, often at great expense to ourselves, in trying to manifest that change.
And, certainly, when you are on the front lines as a human rights defender, that sense of urgency is something that operates for us in a very, very tangible level, in a very vibrant level. And, the Urgent Action Fund has been around for a while, really, focusing on the needs of human rights defenders. How did the idea of care and creating actually a culture of care start to emerge for you in your work? What was it that created that impetus, that possibility of thinking that care was as important as everything else that you were doing as leaders? Tatiana, why don’t we start with you?
Tatiana Cordero: Perfect. Thank you very much. How did it start? Well, actually, we are the third Urgent Action Fund that was created in 2009. And, a year before, the publication, What’s the Point of the Revolution?, that was created by our Sister Funds in the United States, had just been released,
so there was a lot of conversations around the book. And, as we started within the fund, the conversation started in the regions. So, within the fund, ED, Eleanor Douglas took the conversation to the region, and then we started to have a person appointed for this initiative. And so, it was a conversation with human right defenders and activists in the region.
And, when I came into the Fund, I felt that it was so powerful what was happening, that it was important, also, for us to think inside our own practice, and our own fund what was happening, how were people feeling. And, of course, there was this immense contribution of what was going on, and the dialogues with the activists. So, together with Luz Estela, who is part of the program, we started to have a dialogue with the colleagues inside, and to recognize that it was important not only to have this dialogue with the organizations that we supported and work with, but also within the team. So, we started, little by little, to make it an axe that cut across all of our work and then, afterwards, it became a program, and it is something, also, that our Board of Directors has taken very seriously.
And, also, I think that the reflection that because we are an Urgent Action Fund, being urgent, per se, puts a rhythm to the work. So that, as we say in front of urgency there’s the need to pause, there’s a need to be calm, to be able to respond. So, it has been a process of 10 years, 11 already now, within the Fund, and it’s a constant construction. I don’t think that working and being mindful of what care implies within an organization is something that is done once and for all, there are many different dimensions and elements; labor rights, rest, being able to dialogue, have direct communications, being co-responsible.
So, there is a lot to construe a Culture of Care, and we are still there thinking. For example we have learned a lot right now with the pandemic and had to really think what we were going to do to support the team to be able to navigate this moment with the care possible, recognizing that, in their own private lives, they were affected and that they were receiving, also, the difficulties that our grantees were going through.
Mallika Dutt: So, Tatiana, I’m going to stay with you for a moment. When you think about a culture of care, you feel into it, at a deeply personal level what has it meant for you? What has shifted the most for you, as a leader, in the movement? As a person, at whatever, at the level of self, at the level of organization. What has it meant for you personally?
Tatiana Cordero: For me, personally, it implies, and I think that that is also something that is embedded in the fund right now, is the recognition that it is not possible to transform socially anything without transforming oneself. That’s one of the most deep knowledge that I think I was able to feel within the body and make it embody that knowledge, which I find is fantastic, this word in English, embody. So it means that the knowledge becomes part of your whole being and it’s a consciousness that comes from feminism. Feminism has always, from the start said, “We need to see ourselves.” In the early ’70s, or ’80s, when violence against women was an issue, that was not tackled. It was important to collectivize the experience, to share the experience, to be able to hear one another, to support one another. So, process of conscious is raising and self- awareness were there from the start in the ’80s.
And, also, care, as an ethics, it has been part of the feminist movement, also, from the start. So, this is not new. What is new is actually making it a reality within organizations and funds that have forgotten, because too much emphasis has been put on the outside; changing laws, demanding for new policies, equality, which is great. It’s not that that part of politics is not important, but there is this other dimension that, at least in our region, from the ’80s and ’90s, putting too much emphasis on the outside implied forgetting the inside, implied forgetting, again, to have the spaces for ourselves to revise our practices, to revise our pains through this process.
So, it’s actually, again, this call again for care, I think, that is very deep, very important. And I think that, also, in my part of the world where indigenous people and people of African descent have always cared, have always had a culture of care, a community of care. And that care, not only for one another, but for the territory, and for nature. I think that, at this moment, that is also another dimension that we need to really acknowledge; care does not only imply my care for myself, care is always relational, it is between people, between people and environment, between people and animals, living beings. So, it means really opening up to what does that imply.
So, for me, it was this possibility of revising myself, analyzing what am I doing with myself, how am I doing my work? Being able to feel, also, because as you said in the beginning, we have forgotten this very important part of ourselves, we are just here in the heads permanently, rationality we have given it a lot. It is important, but it’s not only reason that makes us be and feel, and also emotions. Feminism also, from the start, said it’s not only reason that is a space and a locus of knowledge; feelings and the body is also a locus of knowledge. So, I think it’s going back to that, it’s acknowledging that. And, for me, it’s also a permanent process of consciousness. And, I think that that is the richness of understanding that care is a deep human value that we need to incorporate in our daily lives and in our organizational practices.
Mallika Dutt: Thank you, Tatiana. So much in what you just shared; the importance of inner work for outer action, finding the relationship between how our inner worlds actually reflect the macro world, and the dynamic relationship between those two things. And, a really deep reminder that we began so much of our political work with an understanding that the personal is political with having all of these conversations around consciousness and change and shift and, somewhere along the way, as we build our movements, our organizations, we almost began to replicate the very systems and the patriarchal constructs that we had set ourselves up to challenge and dismantle, and we became, actually, very much like that in so many of the ways in which we work.
Not only did we do that but, I think, one of the bigger conversations that we’ve been having in the movement is that in not doing our own inner work, we often reproduced the trauma and our own internal challenges around things that we were reproducing, then, in how our leadership showed up. So, we were having a negative impact sometimes, as leaders, on our organizations, on our families, on one another, and getting into very challenging situations for the movement as a whole. And many of us have talked about the wounds that patriarchy or other systems of domination inflict on us while, at the same time, having to protect ourselves from the wounds that we inflict on ourselves and one another.
So, it’s a huge conversation that we’ve all been having and now here we are in this time of the pandemic where we’re being reminded about care and the culture of care in these very, very
profound ways. So, I’m going to go all the way across the world to Fiji where it is very late at night and send my deep gratitude to Virisila who is probably going against her principles of care to be with us at this time. And so, I really want to say thank you for agreeing to be a part of this conversation. And so, Virisila, I’m going to turn to you to ask, how is this notion of a culture of care playing out right now within Urgent Action Fund Asia-Pacific in your communities, in your organization? What are the contours of that conversation and how are you being able to put that into practice?
Virisila Buadromo: Thank you, Mallika. A lot of what Tatiana was just talking about and what she just said really resonated with me. And, as the youngest Urgent Action Fund that we set up in 2018, we were very adamant, both Mary Jane and I, my other co-lead, that we were going to center a culture of care in our work the same way that the other Sister Funds have centered care. But we really learned a lot from our sisters in Latin America, because, again, as Tatiana was saying, we come from a region both Asia and the Pacific where we are a region of community. And, we have a culture of interdependence that’s not only about people, planet, as well as animals, it’s something that is part of our own being; we embodied it.
So, Jane and I were very conscious of this and, because both Jane and I came from the front lines and had also experienced different forms of burned out, and we recognized that this was something that we did not want to be part of in establishing the new Urgent Action Fund. So, we have been very intentional about making collective care a core part of the way that we work, and we have made it part of our learning. We’ve included it from the way that we’ve set up as an organization; for example, as an organization, because we recognize that we live in a volatile region, and we recognize that being registered in just one country was not going to be conducive to the kind of work that we do.
And so, what we did was, we recognized that we needed to be registered in two different countries, for example, and doing that is sharing the responsibility that, if we were to be persecuted as an organization, that we would be able to share that responsibility across two different registrations, for example. We’ve also been very intentional about ensuring that the way that we work, that we tell people that we will work only a certain amount of hours. For example, during the COVID period, we really noticed how our staff was so focused on productivity; they were feeling very guilty that they were hearing from the community of activists that they were being challenged by COVID. So, everybody felt like they needed to do more work to be able to respond to the urgency, but we also said to them that we also needed to take care of ourselves so that we were able to respond better to the activists.
But this was extremely difficult, because a lot of us felt the privilege of where we sat, the privilege of being able to have a job, the privilege of living in countries where we felt safe, that this was not privilege that the activists that we were supporting were experiencing. So, this put a lot of pressure on our team members, so we created space internally to have these conversations, to talk about that we need to rethink the ideas of productivity, we need to, also as Tatiana said, take moments to pause and not feel guilty about that. But that, in itself, was an act of revolution, or an act of resistance. But, that intentionality, it doesn’t come naturally to us, and we start and we stop, but it’s a process that we’re very intentional about making sure that we are doing it. But, also, recognizing that it doesn’t come to us naturally because, at the heart of it, we feel compelled to always be giving but not necessarily be actually resting and just taking time out for ourselves.
Mallika Dutt: So, what you just articulated made me think a double irony here. So, on the one hand, very often, as women or as women-identified leaders, we have many of the old patterns of giving, giving, giving, not receiving, not resting, as part of how we define service, how we define leadership. And then, we have our work systems that are extremely patriarchal in their orientation, that are all about productivity and all about how much we can do in the external world and scale and impact, scale and impact. How do we have scale and impact?
Mallika Dutt: And so, this is the first time I’m actually realizing how those two things come together and actually create an even more challenging environment, a difficult environment, if you will, for organizations that are led by us because no wonder we have so much burnout. No wonder we have so many health challenges. No wonder we start acting out and perhaps not even treating one another in the ways in which we need to because that cycle of always giving out and not replenishing and not nourishing, or not doing our own healing work, or not addressing our own trauma as a critical part of leadership, sort of gets left by the wayside.
And, one of the other things that you said that has me kind of thinking is that we’re talking about COVID made us rethink how we do our work. And, hopefully, this will become part and parcel of how we do our work even when the COVID pandemic has passed. These shifts aren’t just about responding to this particular moment in time, they really are about a cultural change, a norm change, a personal, organizational, political change that, perhaps, the world needs in terms of sort of how we show up and do our work. I remember you talking about the kind of schism that we have created between human rights and humanitarian aid in how we think about our political work, and I wonder if you would reflect a little bit on how that has started to shift for you in your work with Urgent Action Fund Asia Pacific.
Virisila Buadromo: So, when we set up our mandate, we were very conscious that we were a feminist rapid response maker that was responding to women human rights defenders. So, defenders who were defending rights of women or human rights on the ground. But during this pandemic, what we were hearing from the communities that we were working with was… And, I was quite shocked by it because I remember when I was having a conversation with an activist here in Fiji, because at the same time when COVID hit and our borders closed, we had a huge hurricane or a cyclone, it was a category five cyclone that hit the Pacific Islands, Fiji and about three other countries in the Pacific was hit by it.
So, it became quite challenging, because the activists started applying and asking me if they could apply for grants. And when they were sharing what they wanted the support for, which was around care, I was reflecting to them, I said, “Oh. This sounds more like a humanitarian response and we’re not necessarily a humanitarian organization.” And, she actually called me out on it and I was quite struck by it because she called me out on it and said to me, “You know what? It’s only you funders who see these crisis as a humanitarian crisis, as a human rights crisis, or an economic crisis. For those of us who are on the front line, it’s just a crisis.”
And, when she said it like that to me, it resonated with me. I was like, “Yeah. That is so true.” We create these silos for pragmatism to ensure that funding comes through, a humanitarian funding but, for those on the ground, that’s not necessarily how they experience it. And we’re still sort of interrogating it and we’re having these larger conversations, even within the Sister Funds itself, around how do we understand crisis? What does it mean in terms of a humanitarian crisis, a human rights crisis, are they the same thing? How do we respond to it as an Urgent Action Fund? Does that mean that we have to change our response? So, for us an Urgent Action Fund Asia and the Pacific, it’s even making us question our own identity and our own mandate that we need to be rethinking this, and we need to be rethinking this alongside the activists that we are responding to and trying to support.
Mallika Dutt: Thank you, Virisila. You just brought in a whole other layer of what it is that we contend with in the work that we do and that is the relationship of philanthropy and funding to activism and advocacy and on the ground work. And so, for decades we have all been struggling with the very siloed approach that funders take to social change. A siloed approach, a very outcome- oriented approach, creating outcomes and outputs and indicators and impact statements that most of the time are completely unrealistic. A conversation around accountability that leaves them completely unaccountable for the ways in which they are shaping social justice movements, and demands accountability from people doing the work on the ground that is actually out of sync with the reality of community, of life.
If we even bring it to ourselves and think about how our lives are lived, we are not these segmented beings. And, this whole question of embodiment that Tatiana brought up is about sort of remembering the whole soma, the whole being that is the human and then the being in relationship with so many other things. And so, what you’re raising is a reflection of your own role as a funder because Urgent Action Fund is sort of this interesting hybrid of being a philanthropy as well as being an advocacy on the front lines social justice organization. So, perhaps, your role in unpacking all of this is invaluable and really important for the movement as a whole for us to be thinking about how in this moment we also redefine philanthropy and our relationship to money, overall.
And, this is making me think, Tatiana, about a conversation that we were having about how when we are talking about culture of care or care as a cross-cutting, integral part of organization, of movement, of self in a world where, as Urgent Action Fund, you are also raising resources to do the work that you are doing. So, you’re also having to convince your funders of the importance of this approach, or your funders of the importance of ritual, or your funders of the importance of the relationship of indigenous approaches to relationship, to ritual, to the earth, to all beings. These are all frames and constructs that don’t quite fit within the way in which philanthropy has operated, and so I’m curious, Tatiana, about how you have been able to talk to your funders, to the funders Urgent Action Fund, around some of these issues and where have been some of the opportunities and what have been some of the challenges?
Tatiana Cordero: Thank you. In terms of the opportunities, I think that mainly with feminists that are within foundations and that are open, and we have allies, fortunately, all over. So, I think that its allies that are sensitive to our realities. Also, I think that a big contribution has come from women; mainly black women or color women, and, in some cases also, white women that are sensitive to our realities and that are willing to question power dynamics, and that are willing to question Western approaches and understanding, and that are willing to learn. I think that, with those, it has been easier to have a dialogue and to bring the knowledge from the ground that we are bringing also through the interaction with our grantees and with our own realities and our roots.
So, I think that those allies have been crucial for opening up, little by little. Because I’m seven years already in the Fund, and I can say that it’s only in this last year, since 2019, that there is a willingness to hear, to listen, to be attentive, and to say that, probably, one is right. Until last year, it was not taken into consideration. It was like if one was speaking something that was a heresy that was, “What? Care? Self-care, full stop. Collective care, no, no, no, no, no.” Because the market also brought self-care as something that could be sold. The spa, the fitness, the massage, which is great, but it’s not only that. And, as Viri was mentioning, privilege has to be taken into account when one is thinking about care because care is contextual, care is historical, and care is cultural. It cannot be framed outside those three crucial elements.
So, as I say, it was only last year. And it’s unbelievable because, as Viri was speaking before, I was thinking, “Wow,” because it’s always an invitation to reflect when we’re talking about care, it’s always an invitation to rethink. It’s very rich, that’s what I like so much working around the issue and being able also to accept, as Viri was mentioning, how our own reality or our own grantees put into question what we’re doing.
There are two things that came into my mind. I remember when, of course, we knew that relocation is an option, of course, for human right defenders that need to move out of the country or within their country because of security reasons, because of risks, because of menaces. And, the defenders of territory said to ourselves, “No. We are not leaving our country. We are not leaving our territory,” so relocation was not an option. And, through their understanding, and through their position, and their decision, we came to understand that not all protection possibilities were for everybody. So, care and protection, also, is not one way for everybody. And, the richness of it was that we started the dialog and understood the critical importance of collective protection and care for indigenous people, and for Afro-descendant people in communities. And, understood that if we wanted to have a response that really took into account the realities, need, and World Vision of the people that we worked with and for, we needed to have an intercultural approach.
Which meant not only our mestiza culture, which is our ways of seeing and understanding things, but it was acknowledging that from these cultures there was another way of understanding how they want to be protected, how they wanted to be cared for. And, I remember that in a conversation that we had precisely at the Ford Foundation with other funders that fund Urgent Action and frontline defenders. There was somebody there when I said, “We have learned and we have an intercultural approach and so, for us, collective protection is one of the ways we support activists.” This person was very upset, super upset. And, he spoke in this meeting angry. It was like taking away, also, a piece of ways of doing things of power that only individuals sort of protection would be the way that it should be done.
So, what I’m saying is that it has not been easy. I remember another moment where we suggested in this human rights conference not to eat while we work, because it’s very much present within the northern culture to have breakfast meetings, lunch meetings, dinner meetings; to work. And this is seen as, “Wow. We are making the most of our time.” No. No. We need to digest here or here, but not the two at the same time. And it was impressive, for me, how people from this conference when I said no, asked me to please explain why. This, for me, talks a lot about our culture. A culture absolutely dehumanized. That does not recognize that care implies recognizing needs, basic human needs; food, rest, leisure. No.
And that time is not money, time has a rhythm. And we need to remember, again, if we want to survive as humanity, that the rhythms of life are there because it is the best for everybody. It is only respecting those rhythms that we can make sense of what we’re doing. And it really moves me deeply because it touches me, I say, “What are we doing? Have we forgotten the basics?” And yes, we have; we have forgotten the basics. Rest, eat, have time to have fun. Being able to reconcile the work with taking care of kids, animals, yourself, the surroundings. I mean, so it is, again, care and protection has to do with recovering our memory of what is it like to live in equilibrium.
Mallika Dutt: Let us remember what it is like to live in equilibrium. That is so powerful, Tatiana, thank you for reminding us of the need for us to slide back into the rhythms of the world, the cycles of this earth. And, I’m listening to you and I’m reflecting that the irony is that, as movements, when we articulate our desired vision for the world, our desired vision for the communities that we represent or care about or even for ourselves, a big part of that vision is about well-being for everyone, is about well-being. It is about all of the things that you said and, somehow, the vision that we articulate and the cultures that we create of how to achieve that vision, are at odds with one another, that they often end up being actually the complete opposite or counterproductive to the vision that we are trying to create – a world where well-being, for everyone, as well as this planet is at the core of why we will do what we do.
And, I really am sort of listening to your exhortation for us to remember because, in addition to funders resisting supporting care as an integral part of the work that we do, we also meet resistance within the movement. It isn’t as if everybody is on board with this dimension of our political organizing. And so, Virisila, I’m going to come back to you and ask, what have been the places where the opportunities to weave this into the work have existed for you at the Fund in Asia Pacific, and where have been some of the challenges? I also remember you’re talking about waking up to and seeing, “Who are we not hearing from at this moment of crisis?” What are the voices that we used to hear that have disappeared or are not being heard in quite the same way as before and what does that mean for us as we look at a culture of care as the bedrock on how we think about our political organizing? So, I’d love to hear from you about how some of this has been evolving in your own work.
Virisila Buadromo: Yeah. As you said when we opened up the webinar, that this Zooming and this virtual world is becoming the norm for most of us, and it’s really struck me how those of us who have access to internet, not just internet, but stable internet, who have access to laptops and so forth, we’re the ones that seem to be on these virtual spaces. And that there are a lot of communities, or a lot of groups who don’t have that resource; this virtual, digital resource is only available to a certain group of people. And, it’s the same group of people; it’s the same people who have been talking who are the same people who have the access. And, those who are being in some ways, I feel, silenced, don’t have that access. And we ourselves, Urgent Action Fund in Asia and the Pacific, we’ve had a several consultations in the last couple of months, all of them virtual.
And, for example, we’re not getting anybody with disabilities coming to our spaces. And even though we have tried to work with disability organizations to try and co-convene disability spaces, they’re still not coming. So, it’s made me really aware of the fact that I feel like we’re talking to an echo chamber. I feel like we are just confirming our own biases and not necessarily
hearing from others. And, for me, because I’m here in Fiji, and because the COVID situation isn’t as bad, I’m actually going out and still doing community consultations here. I actually have the ability to do that. And, what I’m hearing on the ground from the different defenders that I’m speaking to is, people don’t like this virtual space, they find it completely impersonal. They think that these virtual spaces they feel like they’re being talked down to, they’re not necessarily being heard.
And, for me, that really struck me and I’ve just been trying to figure out ways of how do we make that connection between the virtual and those who are actually still meeting face to face, how do we make that connection? And, how do we make that connection where people feel that there’re authentic conversations that are happening and that they’re not just being brought into these spaces, which is something that one of them said to me was that, “We feel like we’re just being brought into this space as a form of tokenism. And, no one really wants to hear what we’re saying because we don’t have access to the internet.”
So, for us as a funder, it’s also making us think about the kind of support that we are giving. For example, when we first started, we were very clear that it’s only $5,000, our grants, we wouldn’t use it for things like buying a laptop or a phone. We would support say credits for calls and so forth, but now we’re realizing that, if they don’t have a phone or a laptop, they have no chance of connecting. So now, that has made us rethink, “Okay. We’ve got to think about it in a different way. We actually have to provide support for this, so that they are able to have equal access to what others already have.”
So, that has made us also rethink about what we think is a need, and what is an urgent need and what is a strategic or programmatic need, for example, so it’s made us rethink that as well.
Mallika Dutt: Again, it’s hearkening back to the point that you had made earlier about human rights, humanitarian aid, all of the ways in which we create these understandings and these categories in our own heads. And then, when we’re really listening, understand how shifts need to be made and really be in an emergent process of rethinking how we’re showing up with resources, programming, everything, and that a culture of care can be a helpful prism through which we start asking those questions rather than simply asking those questions from the place of policy or an advocacy agenda, it changes. Actually, using culture of care as a prism even starts to shift how we ask the questions, what questions we ask, and then how we respond as funders or as leaders or as anything in that context.
I’m actually going to ask Tatiana about a definition of healing that she shared with me. The word healing is also often seen as touchy-feely, airy fairy, we don’t really understand what that means. And, yet, God knows we are all carrying so much trauma from our own personal familial lives, from the communities and the structures around us, from our histories, from all of the systems that we have created that harm people and the planet in so many different ways. And so, I’m going to just ask Tatiana to talk a little bit about healing, and what that means, and how she approaches it.
Tatiana Cordero: Thanks. For us, also, within the Fund, and I think that also before I came to the Fund, in this process of recognizing that as a movement, there was the need to go back within. There was a need to answer questions that we were leaving outside, as I mentioned before, because of this willingness to rush and to change the outside world. And, the first experience I had was with women supporting survivors of violence against women that, because they did not work, their own wounds, as you were mentioning previously, they were expecting the survivors to resolve situations they didn’t resolve within themselves, and that happens all the time.
And it’s not only with survivors of violence, it’s in any space. If we have not resolved our pains, our traumas, our unresolved issues, we bring it to the collective, or we put it to others without first solving it within ourselves and being able to distance and to know what is it from this space, what is it from me? So, in this process and also in the process of the fund, healing has become critical element of what we understand as protection and care. And, it also has to do with our cultural heritage. Here, healers are all over. You would always hear when you were little whether you are indigenous or not, whether you’re of African descent or not, healing is always present and there. The grandmother that says, “Let your water outside when there’s a full moon and then drink it in the morning. That will do good for you,” these remedies that are part of the culture, very much present.
And so, it has been not difficult for us in the work with activists to have this space and to also receive their own ways of understanding healing and also to bring healers within our different convenings. And I think that, on the one hand, there’s this understanding that sometimes to heal, in a Western approach, has only to do with being ill or going to the doctor and, within our culture, healing is much more profound. It could also include, but not necessarily, being with illness. It has to do with healing of the soul, of the Spirit and, also, that allows to grow consciousness. So, I think it’s a more rich approach to having a healthy life, if one can say, because it’s not only the physical body, again. It’s the whole being that is at the center of a healing process. And on the other hand, also, it has to do with different practices and culture where ritual gives a sense to life, and to harvesting, to planting, to all the rhythms of life; we are full of rituals.
It’s part of our cultural also. So, those two things have been very important to understand that we have to honor our roots, to honor our cultural heritage, that that is who we are. And that, therefore, we need to provide that space also in the work that we do for grantees to be able to have that space and ourselves also that space that is ritual, that connects, that brings us together. And, on the other hand, to recognize the unsurmountable value of healing within our cultures.
And, lastly, also that in terms of oppressed cultures, and also of oppressors, there is a need to heal. We bring that history within ourselves. I mean in the US, it is clear the pain and the deep anger because of the reenacting of violence that was lived since slavery. And, that is all around where black people exist, that occurs the same thing; police brutality in Colombia, in Brazil, in my own country. So, we need to heal that experience because it is passed from generation to generation.
Mallika Dutt: So, Tatiana, when we were talking about this before, you said healing is a process of putting at peace one’s history of distress, trauma, and pain. And, I reflected on that definition when we spoke earlier, and the way in which you talked about coming to peace with it, and even just using the language of being at peace with one’s history of trauma and pain and distress reflects a journey that one has to go through, internally, that can be quite challenging and difficult. Confronting all of the ways in which these things live within us is often more challenging than confronting them outside; being in an advocacy mode to try and change those things externally can sometimes be easier than really allowing oneself to feel the incredible pain that we often carry.
And then, the complexity, again, of what you’re saying in terms of privilege. Especially as feminists, and in the women’s movement I know that, for so many of us, our predominant belief systems, rituals, religions have been incredibly patriarchal. So, if I was to just take what you shared and think about myself; I am a Hindu woman from India, I happen to come from the Brahmin caste, which is the upper caste, with centuries, hundreds of years, of a deeply oppressive caste system, as well as a deeply exploitative and oppressive system towards women. I mean, I often think that many of the challenges that we face in India today, whether they are around gender-biased sex selection, dowry, early marriage, so many of things, culturally, are propagated and supported by the religious values.
And then, when you layer on top of that, the current political situation where we have a political leadership that is about uplifting and supporting a particular understanding of Hinduism that is about reinforcing those hierarchies and creating even more hierarchies, as well as using that as a way to politically silence dissent in multiple ways, I think about this healing journey that you’re talking about. And, how many dimensions it has to be able to make peace, in a way. The other side of what I just said is, also, a religious and cultural legacy that is very rich; that has gods and goddesses and rituals and archetypes and all manner of ways in which our communities come together to celebrate. So many of the rituals in India are connected to the cycles of spring and fall and the harvest and the moon. So many of the mantras in Sanskrit actually have to do with the elements with earth, wind, fire, air. And, there’s often a complete disconnect between what we’re saying and what we’re actually doing.
So even if we were to take the holiness of the river the Ganga, the Ganges, as being this very, very sacred place that is, simultaneously, polluted and destroyed with all of the poisons and all of the things that we put into the water with no respect for the integrity of the water, or for the sacredness with which we uphold it while we’re chanting mantras. And, I’m getting into this with a little bit more specificity because I sometimes think that when it comes to embracing our histories and our legacies and ritual and belief systems, that there are these complexities that we are often dealing with where, on the one hand, there is deep ritual and then, on the other hand, there is deep oppression that is associated with those rituals.
For me, learning from particularly indigenous communities, and trying to find ways to become more whole and more at peace with all of these aspects of myself, has been my path of learning, has been my journey. And, I say that while also uplifting the challenges that we have of what you said earlier about the wellness industry, a very capitalist approach to using these modalities. Also, cultural appropriation, of how we then take the cultures and the cultural experiences of other people and then sort of make them our own. And, a global world that is constantly learning and sharing and dynamic and magnetic and co-creating new things.
So, in this world of a culture of care, there is the deep simplicity of how do we come to care from a place of concern, protection, well-being, understanding needs, through this prism and all of these different layers and layers and layers of unveiling, unpeeling, that we do and that we continue to do as leaders, as feminists and, at this moment, in this historical moment in time that we are in, which is actually destroying all the veils? It’s pulling apart so many veils that we have had before. And, I didn’t mean to go on such great lengths, this is a set of questions that I really sit with and hold very deeply.
And, I’m again going to come back to the group that we have with us on this webinar and ask if people have anything that they would like to share about their own questions, their own approaches within their organizations. I’m assuming.
Melissa Wainaina: Hi, everyone. This is Melissa. I’m connecting from a small village called Makuyu, in Kenya. Really happy to be here in this conversation. Urgent Action Fund Africa has established a platform to continue to enhance its support to African women human rights defenders called the Feminist Republik. And, I have been running this for about six months and we like to have a small laugh; my induction was COVID, COVID response. And so, what are we doing? So, before I knew where our files were, I pretty much had to respond to how people in the front lines are having to tackle with the pandemic.
I think what we are listening and what we are hearing really resonates with us in terms of our politics, how we are going to embody the idea of a more integrated way for us to bring in our political action, our social action, and our bodies as they are, experience ourselves as we are. But, also, I like the idea of that reconnecting with that memory, remembering again the memory where we center ourselves around care, we center our communities around care, we center our approach around care. And, I think, the pandemic has really been a big pivotal moment for those who either the memories were not afforded to them, or the predominant capitalist spaces have just separated us or disconnected us.
I also want to just end by saying, the other day, we were having a virtual healing gathering and I hear you about the virtual space is not always resonating with everyone but sometimes we are working with what we have. Coming across the idea of healing being a reconnection to wholeness, the memory of wholeness and, increasingly, as the Feminist Republik platform, we are co-creating this body of knowledge, this basket of resources, these tools that we can tap into for those whose memories are still present with us, helping us with the ways and the practices that have worked for them that people could audit or replicate. For those who are very advanced in care communities.
Because we also recognize quite a lot of people were like, “Oh. It’s not the first time we’re doing social distancing. We’ve done this during Ebola, so here’s what worked for us and here is where perhaps this can be an opportunity for movements to think about differently.” So, just having that basket where we are able to allow people to weave in, have understanding, struggle with, take it back, see what’s working just to breathe life into movements, into organizing, into communities. And, also, embody what could be different when coming up with drafts of a post-COVID feminist response and whatever that could be from the economic realms, from the social realms. In the local village, how things will be run, how things will be done. How things will be done, also, within homes. Definitely, the work space has really shifted.
A lot of these ideas, climate labor laws, they’ve being really siloed, but I think right now this is a moment for us to be able to have those conversations of the unholy alliances that existed and how they’ve really separated us from ourselves. So, we are really grateful for this opportunity
where we were just kind of listening in on these ideas and finding ways to be able to take them forward and suggest what we can on our side. So, I think I’ll just leave my commentary at that. Thank you.
Mallika Dutt: Thank you so much, Melissa. Remembering our relationship to wholeness, what a beautiful definition for healing that really is quite inspiring. And, Sharon, I’m going to come to you and ask you to unmute yourself and join the conversation.
Sharon Harrison: Thank you so much, Mallika. So, I’m from Witness in New York, and we’re organization also is international. I really enjoyed the conversation from Tatiana talking about lunchtime meetings which we, again, I think, have all done that. So, I for one hate lunch meetings for that same reason, because I can’t eat and think at the same time, it’s just too complicated. So, I would much rather either do one or the other.
But, what actually resonated with me was you’re talking about the different areas, and the different cultures and how we approach things. Because, I think, one of the biggest issues that we continue to have, especially during COVID, and what’s been going on in the United States, is really trying to understand each other to get to that healing process. Especially when you come from different areas of the world, different racisms that you may have faced, colonialism that you’ve been facing, and not understanding that a lot of what you’re talking about is actually the same pain and trauma. And, how do you come together as a group, an international group, to deal with that? Because there’s just so many different facets. Either one of them could answer that one.
Mallika Dutt: Thank you, Sharon. Thank you for that question. I’m going to ask our speakers to weigh in with any closing thoughts and, as part of that, to respond to what you just raised.
Virisila Buadromo: I think I need to process what Sharon is asking, but I just want to say thank you for creating this space and I think we need to have more of these conversations, particularly now, so that we can learn from each other. I’ve really, really appreciated this. I’ve really appreciated hearing what you have to say, Mallika. And, whenever I’m around Tatiana, I learn something new all the time. So, I really appreciate this. Thank you very much.
Mallika Dutt: Thank you, Virisila. Tatiana?
Tatiana Cordero: Yeah. Thanking, again, also for this space. I totally agree with my sister, Viri, that we need to have more of these conversations. And, I think that the richness is the possibility to get a bit more deeper, and also to be able to analyze the context and to see how we’re doing. So, for me, it also has been a space of learning and I always love to be with my sisters, of course. And, in this case, with Viri having this space, it is a joy for me, always.
And, in relation to Sharon, it’s a huge question, but the only thing I can say is what we have experienced here, it is possible, also, to heal collectively. And, I think, that is one of the richness of the practices of our communities and our cultures, that healing doesn’t need to be only individual, that healing could be collective. And, that it helps, also, being in the collective to share the experience, and to feel that one is not alone, and to feel held. So, that’s the only thing that I could say that, even though they are different dimensions, different levels, and it’s complicated, if we ourselves, individually and or collectively, take the responsibility of doing this process, that is our share. That is what we can do to make things different. Thank you very much, Mallika and Ambika.
Mallika Dutt: Thank you, Tatiana. And, Mufuliat says, “Community healing is stronger and empowering through sharing of experiences, it aids individual healing.” And, that is a lovely place for us to end this conversation. My deep gratitude to you.
Mallika Dutt: This series of Leadership Moves is supported by the BUILD Program of the Ford Foundation. Stay connected at Mallikadutt.com.
This series is supported by the BUILD program of the Ford Foundation.
Theme music from Mann ke Manjeeré: an album of women’s dreams, (c) Breakthrough 2000. Used with permission.
Production team: Mallika Dutt, Devadas Labrecque, Ambika Pressman